The English Year: The nation's customs and festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night, By Steve Roud

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The Independent Culture

The origins of our national festivals are both more and less arcane than we had imagined: Mother's Day is as much of an import as Hallowe'en. "Rough Music", the custom of raising hell beneath the windows of malefactors, may have represented mob rule, but at least it was aimed mainly at wife-beaters. Padstow's 'Obby 'Oss is well known, but, if the locals don't watch out, it faces a serious rival in "Darkie Day". This curious relic of the minstrel tradition, so the local MP claimed in 2006, is quite innocent, and the blacked-faces part of "mumming" have nothing to do with racism. A shame the "mummers" sing minstrel songs, then.

Steve Roud guides the reader through this gallimaufry of often dubious delights with that easy style that comes from hard-won erudition. His book is also something of a manifesto. While folklore is a legitimate area of study, it mustn't be confused with "fakelore". We are still in thrall to the notion that customs such as maypole dancing are (because they must be) half-forgotten memories of pagan rites. He points out, firstly that there's no evidence for this, and secondly that it's a catch-all both trite and dull. Similarly, the custom of adorning churches with garlands needs no pre-Reformation pedigree: flowers are pretty, people like them – especially after a cold, flowerless winter.

If I have a quibble, it lies with the author's assurance that he will reveal the true origin of our festivals. This promise is not always fulfilled. Then again, how could it be? As Roud concedes in his introduction, the job of the rigorous folklorist is, often, to be "a killjoy". Well, if you can't enjoy a beautiful vase unless you're told it's from the Ming dynasty, then your joy is more fragile than the vase itself. But if you love the quirky, the maverick, the useless, for itself, then this rich and wonderful compendium is for you.

Penguin, £9.99